Audiobook review: Kate Flannery’s “Strip Tees” gives American Apparel a dressing-down

Audiobook review: Kate Flannery’s “Strip Tees” gives American Apparel a dressing-down

The pictures told the story. At one point in Strip Tees, Kate Flannery’s American Apparel memoir, she receives a series of photos for store display that depict a girl she’d recently hired as a high schooler, posing provocatively for the company’s 37-year-old male leader. The teenager was seemingly becoming a “Dov girl,” one of the employees who shared Dov Charney’s bed.

For consumers who didn’t know the photo subjects personally, American Apparel’s problematic yet iconic ads told a different story. They saw a clean and sexy look (Charney couldn’t abide tattoos or facial piercings) for the 2000s, a retro romp they could join with a clean conscience. The products were made in the U.S.A., after all.

Charney opened the first American Apparel store in 2003, and by the turn of the 2010s it was exploding around the world. The brand name featured often in the early days of this site, The Tangential, as a key signifier of ironically high-end hipsterdom.

“‘Classic Girl’ is in,” wrote my colleague Becky Lang after perusing American Apparel’s website circa 2011. “Find your ‘timeless beauty’ by wearing nude-colored, belly-baring halter tops, oversized polo shirts and a lack of makeup and deodorant that says, ‘I’m not really this preppy. I just got out of rehab and they threw these clothes at me and give me a cigarette now.'”

The sketchiness at the company’s core wasn’t an especially well-kept secret, but it was kept well enough. At the climax of Strip Tees, Flannery has to decide whether to accede to Charney’s pressure to send an email to the company’s human resources team, assuring them that an instance of sexual assault was just a misunderstanding.

Strip Tees, which borrows the company’s aesthetic for its Helvetica-forward cover, has a similar minimalism in its prose style. Though it’s a far cry from the inscrutable deadpan of Tao Lin — whose Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009) was a foundational text of the alt lit era — Flannery’s book is direct and unfussy in its chronicle of her years working for the company.

After taking a retail job at a Los Angeles store, Flannery quickly learned American Apparel wasn’t just another clothing company. The company’s employees were also its models, which served to both solidify their relationship to the brand and to provide Charney with access to a bottomless “spank bank,” as Flannery puts it. It also saved the company money, though a foray into professional modeling taught the author that working in the industry proper was hardly less exploitative.

Flannery is forthright about the company’s allure for young women like the one she was in 2004. The company seemed to be run by her peers — with Charney the glaring exception that proved, in fact made, the rule. American Apparel made its customers feel sexy, and the halo of desirability glowed over its employees all the more so. When Flannery hit the road to recruit employees for new stores, she graduated from “uninspired hours of missionary sex with my ex” to “The Year I Fucked Everybody.”

While Flannery details the manipulative culture that made it hard for her to leave the company even as the alarm bells in her head reached a state of constant clamor, she also underlines the fact that the wider world had its own problems. Strip Tees doesn’t attempt wide-ranging cultural criticism, but it stands as a sobering depiction of the years leading up to the Me Too movement. How would the conversation around American Apparel go today?

Whatever conversations Strip Tees sparks aren’t likely to have much impact on the brand as it stands today: owned by Gildan Activewear, operating only online, and no longer manufacturing its signature shirts in the United States. (It’s now Central American apparel.)

Charney was terminated over harassment claims in 2014, then bought much of the company’s machinery in a bankruptcy sale and launched a similar company called Los Angeles Apparel. He appears in Strip Tees as an absurdly entitled, emotionally immature character who’s incapable of empathy and elevates similarly problematic men.

Flannery (not to be confused with The Office actor) found a career in television, but Strip Tees keeps its focus squarely on her American Apparel years. It’s a straightforward account of what was going through her head as she carried on participating in a company culture that she likens to both a cult and hypnotism.

Her discipline in sticking to that story is both a strength and a limitation. The book invites questions about the broader cultural relevance of American Apparel as a brand, and about the outside parties, from journalists to investors, who participated in the company’s rise. Flannery alludes to those questions, but largely keeps her readers in the trenches for this first-person narrative.

Flannery’s fellow employees also largely remain ciphers. Although the author describes becoming close with many of her colleagues, Strip Tees readers don’t learn much about them. In part, that reflects a corporate culture of divide and conquer, where employees were left to surmise (often incorrectly) who was and wasn’t sleeping with Dov. Still, it limits the book’s reach. Whatever parallels there may have been to Flannery’s discomfiting experience with the brand, Strip Tees hews to being one woman’s story.

The author herself narrates the audiobook in a tone that reflects the cool competence she seems to have brought to her work for the brand. If the listener is left curious about people and events beyond the scope of Flannery’s narrative, in part that’s because the audiobook comes most alive when the author occasionally ventures beyond the company’s insular confines.

In one particularly striking episode, Flannery reminisces about an experience watching a hypnotist during college orientation. For one student the performer’s trick goes too far, and “after that night,” recalls the author, “anytime I would see that girl on campus, I’d think, there’s that poor girl who couldn’t get unhypnotized.”

The analogy is clear: at American Apparel, Flannery and her colleagues just couldn’t seem to snap out of it. Strip Tees is both a direct indictment of Charney’s culture and an indirect critique of the broader forces that allowed it to flourish.

Jay Gabler